Unbeaten Kentucky came through Ohio — a round of 32 win over Cincinnati and two games in Cleveland last weekend — to get to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
On the other side of a highly anticipated rematch of a classic Kentucky-Wisconsin game in last year’s Final Four are two Ohio natives playing very different roles for Wisconsin than they did a year ago.
Nigel Hayes is a now a scorer and, if not a star, certainly a key cog. An injury took Traevon Jackson out of the lineup in January, but Wisconsin’s point guard for much of the last three seasons returned last week in a spot role and should be ready for more if the Badgers need him.
It was Jackson’s shot that rimmed out at the buzzer in Kentucky’s 74-73 win in last year’s Final Four. Hayes took two shots in the game, making one for two points.
This year, Hayes is averaging 12.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, up five points and 3.5 rebounds from his freshman year. The 6’7 Toledo native is 35-of-92 from 3-point land on the season, adding a dimension to the Wisconsin offense that wasn’t there a year ago when Hayes, then a backup, didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer.
When Jackson got into the Badgers’ Sweet 16 game last week vs. North Carolina, he made a corner 3-pointer that boosted the team and his own confidence. That was his first action since early January, four games into the Big Ten schedule, when Jackson suffered a broken foot.
Jackson scored four points in nine minutes vs. North Carolina. He didn’t score in seven minutes vs. Arizona in the regional final, but a big second half from his teammates extended his career, set up this Kentucky rematch and gave Jackson an additional week to get himself ready for more.
"I’ll be ready when my name is called," Jackson said last weekend.
Jackson is averaging 8.6 points per game on the season, about two points below his average last year. That can be attributed to the emergence of Hayes and Sam Dekker and a number of other factors. Jackson said last weekend the bench role is new to him and not necessarily one he loves, but that he’s glad to be back and helping any way he can.
The son of former Ohio State star Jimmy Jackson has been dismissed before.
"Going back to high school, Trae Jackson wasn’t getting a lot of love from Big Ten schools," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "We liked his moxie. We liked his court awareness. Sometimes people see the flaws and other people see the positives. We thought Trae Jackson could be an excellent addition to us."
Two Final Fours later, Ryan was right.
"His record as our starting point guard was pretty good," Ryan said. "He became one of the better defensive guards in the Big Ten. If he’s physically capable of being on the court (now), he deserves some time because I’m going to reward him for working so hard in the rehab and getting back.
"He deserves it."
Saturday, Wisconsin faces the NCAA tournament’s most talented and deepest team, and the Badgers will need all available help.